Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Battle for History

If you know anything about history (the subject, not specific facts of) you know that the study of history ("historiography") has long been defined by academics by the understanding of the works of two of the world's greatest historians, Herodotus' "The Histories" and Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War." Anyone who has taken a college course on world history has probably heard the now long accepted tenet that both works represented two very different approaches to history, with Herodotus representing the "narrative" (and hence unreliable) style which seeks to survey history as widely as possible and where the author makes few judgments about what is or isn't reliable, authoritative or authentic. The work of Thucydides has come to represent the opposite approach, the neutral and "scientific" study of history where the historian seeks to understand all sides of a historical question and makes judgments about what is or is not reliable, leading the student or reader to natural conclusions regarding an historical event. Of course, as with any explanation or analogy that provides or easily leads to a "black and white" understanding, the truth is more nuanced. An effort has been underway for decades now to ressurect the reputation of Herodotus as a true historian, as well as to shine some light on the true nature of Thucydides' work. A new review by Peter Green in the New York Review of Books cast some light on both of these trends. The study of history has itself evolved over the last hundred or so years, and surprisingly, modern methods have come to mirror the approach of Herodotus:

That current trends in historiography echo, to a quite remarkable extent, the methods and assumptions of Herodotus is undeniable. The widespread use of social and ethnographic anthropology as an investigative tool is only the most obvious instance. Herodotus' observations about different customs and cultures—which in fact take up the greater part of the first half of the Histories, as he surveyed the various regions of the Persian empire—make him a groundbreaking anthropologist. Personal motivation (as opposed to abstract trends) and the influence of women in public affairs are very much back in the picture. The new understanding of oral transmission provides a satisfying answer to those who dismissed Herodotean anecdotes as mere crowd-pleasing digressions, and sheds fresh light on his careful evidential distinction between seeing (opsis) and hearsay (ako√™). Many of the Persians, despite belonging to the Barbarian Other, come off with honor and dignity in his pages, even during the final narrative of Xerxes' invasion. Such insatiable and open-minded curiosity about the unfamiliar, including one's (undemonized) enemies, got him labeled philobarbaros by Plutarch, but today counts strongly in his favor.

In other words, an ethnographic approach to history that was dismissed as unreliable in college courses I took only ten years ago, has actually in recent decades become a valuable tool to modern historians (as it should, as in truth historians and anthropologists study the same thing, only at different times.)

Academics, for all the criticism about their lives in crystal towers above the frays of modern men and women, are actually extremely sensitive to political changes (as they are either in the leading forefront of such change, the elite of conventional political society, or the victims of political change.) Thucydides approach to history, with his focus on war as the dynamic for change and the central role of "great men" of history, was appealing to the imperalists and monarchists historians and philosophers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centures:

During the past half-century, however, Thucydides' almost superhuman reputation has come under severe critical scrutiny, while Herodotus' stock has correspondingly risen—a fact to which Robert Strassler's new Landmark volume of translation and commentary bears substantial witness. The change does little more than belatedly reflect a fundamental revolution in Western cultural values that has taken place during the last two hundred years. Greece, in particular the Athenian democratic ideal, only came to be privileged over Rome after the Greek, French, and American revolutions gave imperialism a decidedly shopworn look. Thucydides' main virtue for the seventeenth-century monarchist Thomas Hobbes had been that "he made me realize how silly is democracy." (This is hardly surprising. For true democracy Thucydides had no more time than did that aristocratic intellectual Plato; he welcomed the authoritarianism implicit in Pericles' de facto rule as first citizen, and his favorite acknowledged form of government was in fact a limited oligarchy.) The swing toward idealistic republicanism was further developed in the English-speaking world by the banker George Grote's unprecedentedly liberal History of Greece, published in twelve volumes between 1846 and 1856, which praised not only democracy but the Sophists as the true heralds of freedom.

This was the most radical change in Western assumptions about the ancient world since the Renaissance, and it prepared the ground for many other changes. Alexander the Great, for example, hitherto looked up to as the imperialist conqueror par excellence, now had to have his career of conquest explained and justified as a crusade designed to bring Hellenic culture to the benighted East (Victorian missionary work in Africa and Polynesia helped to support this view of him). The century-long struggle by feminists from the suffragette movement onward meant that eventually their automatic exclusion from the Thucydidean historiographical canon would be seriously questioned. Later still, first post-colonialism and then globalization meant a vast change—not always appreciated for what it was, or even, sometimes, noticed—in assumptions made about both other nations and one's own when studying the historical evolution of ancient society.

So, as our political climate changes, so too does the political thought of the academics changes. As the History Channel is a testement to, the preferred focus of the amateur (and presumably male) historian is on war and the power of individual men to sway the course of world events. But as academics have come to realize, great change in the world can be bred in the smallest of events involving (presumably) the least signficant of people, and war is frequently less a harbinger of change than a response to it. Herodotus, with his explorations of custom, his broad and all inclusive approach to history, and his unwillingness to provide conclusions for the reader (neutrality has long been lauded but seldom practiced by historians who, armed with the completeness of their knowledge and the confidence of their intellectual prowess, have usually been more than willing to arrive at conclusions for their students and readers) now suddenly is the inspiration for the approach of modern historians.

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